With Willow decision looming, Biden announces new limits elsewhere in NPR-A

This map shows the site of the Willow development on the North Slope of Alaska. The five originally proposed drill sites are marked by squares. (Bureau of Land Management)

The Biden administration says it intends to seek “maximum protection” for sensitive areas of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, though it hasn’t yet said whether it will grant a permit for Willow, ConocoPhillips’ massive project in the NPR-A.

Multiple news agencies, citing unnamed sources, report that the administration will approve the permit. If so, the unusual Sunday night announcement of new Arctic protections seems aimed at softening the blow to Willow opponents. Environmental advocates and younger voters are urging the administration to move the country away from fossil fuels to avoid a catastrophic climate crisis.

Several conservation groups responded immediately to say the protections are good but don’t outweigh the impact of granting the Willow permit.

“No matter what they’re doing with all of these protections, in terms of the special areas or the offshore drilling, it’s not enough if they’re going to permit Willow,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska director for The Wilderness society.

Details not clear

The announcement says the administration will propose a new rule seeking additional protection for 13 million acres – more than half the refuge – that are already considered to have high natural and historical value.

It’s not clear if any of the limits will apply to the 2.5 million acres that are already under lease in the NPR-A.

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. (ConocoPhillips via AP)

Willow has widespread support from Alaska’s political and business establishment. It’s been a top priority of Alaska’s congressional delegation. The Alaska Legislature passed a unanimous resolution asking the Biden administration to approve it. Support is particularly strong in the North Slope Borough. The borough and local governments in the region would gain millions of dollars a year in payments and taxes.

At peak, Willow would boost Alaska’s oil production by 40% over today’s output. It’s projected to remain in operation for 30 years.

The tribe and city of Nuiqsut, the nearest community to Willow, oppose the project. They cite concerns about pollutants, industrial noise and disruption to the wildlife central to their subsistence way of life.

The administration’s announcement also says President Joe Biden will use executive authority to withdraw 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from potential offshore oil and gas leases. In 2016, President Barack Obama removed nearly the entire Beaufort and Chukchi seas from consideration for leasing. Biden’s action would remove the remaining section – a strip of ocean near the NPR-A.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Yukon gov’t boasts of ‘strongest economy in Canada,’ tables $48M surplus budget, CBC News

Norway: Norway’s oil minister: “We need new discoveries”, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Crisis-ridden Russian gas industry looks to Arctic for more LNG, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Sen. Sullivan stresses economic promise of Willow drilling project in annual address to Legislature, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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